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Borowski, Tadeusz

BOROWSKI, Tadeusz

Nationality: Polish. Born: Żytomierz, Ukraine, 12 November 1922; lived in Warsaw after 1932. Education: Taught by Franciscan monks; Warsaw University. Career: Worked as a night watchman; worked as a hospital orderly while imprisoned in Auschwitz and Dachau, 1943-45; political journalist, Warsaw, 1946-51. Died: Suicide, July 1951.

Publications

Collection

Utwory zebrane [Collected Works] (5 vols.). 1954.

Memoir

Byliśmy w Oświęcimiu, with Janusz Nel Siedlecki and Krystyn Olszewski. 1946; as We Were in Auschwitz, 2000.

Short Stories

Kamienny swiat [World of Stone]. 1948.

Pożegnanie z Marią [Farewell to Maria]. 1949.

Opowiadania z ksiazek i z gazet. 1949.

Czerwony maj. 1953.

Wybór opowiadaŃ. 1959.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Other Stories (selections from Kamienny swiat and Pożegnanie z Marią ). 1967.

Opowiadania wybrane. 1971.

DzieŃ na Harmenzach. 1978.

Poetry

Gdziekolwiek ziemia [Wherever the Earth]. 1942.

Imiona nurtu [The Names of the Current]. 1945.

Poszukiwania [Tracing], with Krystyn Olszewski. 1945.

Poezje wybrane. 1971.

Poezje. 1972.

Selected Poems. 1990.

Other

Pewien zolnierz. 1947.

Na przedpolu; artykuly i reportae (political science). 1952.

Proza z lat 1948-1952. 1954.

Wiersze. 1968.

Wspomnienia, wiersze, opowiadania (reminiscences, verse, and stories). 1977.

Rozmowa z przyjacielem: Wiersze, with Tadeusz Drewnowski (correspondence). 1999.

*

Film Adaptations:

Landscape after a Battle, from the short story, "Bitwa pod Grunwaldem."

Critical Studies:

"A Discovery of Tragedy (The Incomplete Account of Tadeusz Borowski)" by Andrzej Wirth, in Polish Review, 12(3), 1967, pp. 43-52; "Tadeusz Borowski: A European Education" by Jan Kott, in The Theatre of Essence and Other Essays, 1984; "When the Earth Is No Longer a Dream and Cannot be Dreamed through to the End" by Jan Walc, in Polish Review, 32(2), 1987, pp. 181-94; "Beyond Self: A Lesson from the Concentration Camps" by Piotr Kuhiwczak, in Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Litterature Comparee, 19(3), September 1992, pp. 395-405; "Images of the Jew Focused on in the Translated Polish Works of Tadeusz Borowski, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and Czeslaw Milosz" by Harriet L. Parmet, in Shofar, 18(3), Spring 2000, pp. 13-26; Suffering Witness: The Quandary of Responsibility after the Irreparable by James Hatley, 2000.

* * *

At 20 Tadeusz Borowski became a prisoner at Auschwitz; he wrote his best stories before he was 23. Liberated from the Dachau-Allach camp, he returned to Poland, and within several years he published his collections of stories, Farewell to Maria and The World of Stone , as well as two social-realist works and a number of articles. His writing was deeply controversial. The values of his literary world were noticed, but he suffered merciless attacks—first from Catholic circles and later from Communist ones. The former accused him of amorality and nihilism, the latter of writing pessimistic stories that did not fit with the obligatory optimism of Stalinism.

Borowski's writing was shocking for literary critics and readers not prepared to accept the cruel truth of Auschwitz. He revealed a world where nobody was innocent. In the camp the price for one's survival was the life of a fellow prisoner. Auschwitz is shown as a profit-bringing enterprise, with no mention of heroism or religious faith. The prisoners are cunning people who trade and make deals.

Long before Hannah Arendt Borowski spoke of the triviality of evil. He did not demonize the Germans; he portrayed them as officials rather than butchers. He showed people enslaved by starvation and the looming presence of death, reduced to being objects or beasts of burden. A young Auschwitz prisoner points to the destructive power of hope, which helped to lead people to gas chambers.

This world is described by Tadek, a narrator who closely resembles Borowski. Tadek belongs to a group of privileged prisoners who are not hungry and are well acquainted with the rules of the survival "game." In Auschwitz he sees the essence of European civilization in which there were always lords and slaves.

This picture of Auschwitz evoked objections. Reality and artistic creation were often mistaken, and Borowski was accused of immoral behavior in the camp. Certainly the camp experience determined his vision, and none of his stories on other subjects attained an artistic level equal to those in which he showed what the camp really was. For Borowski the camp was a model of a totalitarian society, a direct consequence of Nazism and a product of European civilization. Thus, the camp civilization became the most essential issue.

Borowski focused on the camp phenomenon three times. In 1946 he published We Were in Auschwitz with Janusz Nel-Siedlecki and Krystyn Olszewski. After his return to Poland he published a collection of stories that included "A Day at Harmenz" and "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen." He added three new stories: "Farewell to Maria," "The Death of an Insurgent," and "The Battle of Tannenberg," all with a common narrator. The first tells about the time preceding his arrest, the second about the Dachau-Allach camp, and the third about the period after the liberation. The judgement criterion is the camp. The pre-Auschwitz and post-Auschwitz worlds are described in the same terms.

Borowski resumed the issue of the camp in 1948 in The World of Stone , his defense against the attacks of Catholic and Marxist critics. Although Borowski referred to camp life, the thematic range of the stories is wider, and he exposed and condemned evil also in the post-war reality. He adopted a different form of writing, using utmost condensation of images that pertain to single motifs or events. The stories, however, do not make a uniform whole, and the evil described is not equal. Sometimes its manifestations are negligible, evoking accusations of all-present pessimism and nihilism.

Borowski's writing concerning the camp belongs to classical works of this genre, and there are many splendid critical works on it (by Czeslaw Milosz , Tadeusz Drewnowski, Andrzej Werner, and Zygmunt Ziatek), yet it still evokes diverse opinions and arguments. That Borowski joined the Communist Party and sided in his writing with the new totalitarian ideology is variously perceived. The opinions concerning the artistic values of his prose related to the camp are divergent. Questions arise concerning the status and the psychological portrait of the narrator, the distance between narrator and writer, the reporting or the parabolic construction of the stories, and the author's involvement in the evaluation of the presented world. It seems that to some extent all opinions are legitimate, while the discrepancies between them result from the attempt to find a common denominator for several stories, while in fact in each of them a separate literary strategy is employed.

An important issue was raised by Henryk Grynberg in "Holocaust w literaturze polskiej" in Prawda nieartystyczna (1984), who accused Borowski of universalizing the Shoah theme. By seeking reference to Auschwitz in ancient civilization or in the medieval visions of doomsday Borowski describes a concentration camp, not an extermination camp, which is beyond comparison.

Nevertheless, despite the universalization of the Auschwitz experience, Borowski's writing is a Holocaust testimony in which the difference between the fate of the Aryans and of the Jews is clearly marked. "Auschwitz, Our Home" is an attempt to re-create the writer's letters to his fiancée, Maria Rundo.

The narrator is a student, a humanist who has just come to Auschwitz, which he treats as an intellectual challenge and seeks a proper form of describing it. He writes letters to console his girlfriend; they seem to be a continuation of conversations from before their arrest. The next stories, which are directly concerned with the Holocaust, are "The People Who Walked On" and "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen." They deal with extermination and record the changes in the author's psyche. The first is a testimony of intellectual helplessness in the face of the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Here we can read his famous sentence that is a harbinger of his laconic, cold, and precise manner: "Between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death." It is the "Canada" perspective and the perspective of the Sonderkomando in Auschwitz-Birkenau that allows the Auschwitz I camp to be called "our home", since at the threshold of a gas chamber there is no difference between it and the normal world.

—Kazimierz Adamczyk

See the essays on This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen and We Were in Auschwitz.

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